Mali: More Details on the January 18 Gao Suicide Bombing

On January 18, suicide bombers attacked the Operational Coordination Mechanism in Gao, northern Mali – the camp for forces preparing to undertake mixed patrols (rebels, pro-government militias, government forces) in the city. The casualty count, initially reported at around forty, has steadily risen, with RFI (French) putting it now at 77.

The attack was soon claimed (French) by al-Murabitun, a group affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who may or may not be dead. Al-Murabitun said,

We warn all those who have been seduced by France…that we will not accept barracks, bases, patrols, or convoys of the French colonizer who fights the mujahidin.

International media coverage of the statement understandably focused on its anti-French language and the fact that French President Francois Hollande visited Gao just a few days before the attack. But I read the statement more as an anti-peace proclamation, and the attack not as primarily anti-French but as anti-peace. The mixed patrols in Gao represent a small step toward peace in northern Mali (a peace supported by France, no doubt, but also brokered by Algeria and supported to different degrees by the Malian government and other non-jihadist actors in the north), and the achievement of that peace would further marginalize al-Murabitun.

Another noteworthy detail is that al-Murabitun identified the bomber as Abd al-Hadi al-Fulani. Although this is likely a pseudonym, it seems al-Murabitun wished to stress that the bomber was from the Fulani/Peul ethnic group, which is prominent in central and northern Mali and throughout the western Sahel and into northern Nigeria (on central Mali, International Crisis Group’s report from last year is worth reading). The Fulani have come under heavy, and to my mind completely unfair, suspicion as a group over the past few years. Al-Murabitun may be both trying to trumpet whatever Fulani support it has and hoping that identifying the bomber as Fulani will exacerbate collective punishment and suspicion of the Fulani – a scenario that could benefit al-Murabitun, of course.

For its part, the Malian government has swung into action, with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita visiting Gao (French) and declaring three days of national mourning. But RFI (French) has questions about how easily the bomber (or bombers? there may have been up to five) penetrated the camp in Gao. Malian voices have joined in the critical questioning, with one commentator (French) denouncing the “irresponsibility of the Malian state its partners.” The critics, I think, have a point. If the mixed patrols in Gao are to bring greater security to the north, they must themselves enjoy a basic level of security.

 

Mali’s Mixed Patrols and Yesterday’s Gao Suicide Bombing

Yesterday saw a tragic suicide bombing – the deadliest in Mali’s history – in the northern city of Gao. The bombing targeted a camp housing forces in Gao’s new mixed patrols. I analyze the patrols and their significance in this piece for Global Observatory. An excerpt:

The violence targeted a base that 200 former rebels had recently entered in preparation for mixed patrols with the Malian military and pro-government militias. These patrols are intended to fulfill a key condition of the 2015 Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, which has faced a rocky path to implementation. The new violence shows the serious and persistent level of opposition that has made peace so difficult to achieve in the country.

The patrols comprise three main groups: 200 former separatist rebels (CMA), 200 pro-government militia members (Platform), and 200 government soldiers. Here is one reported death toll from yesterday:

The suicide bombing in Gao has been claimed (French) by al-Murabitun, a unit affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The incident shows how jihadists retain the ability to act as spoilers. In this case, they have chosen a highly symbolic target, striking at a core vehicle for attempting to build unity and peace in northern Mali.

Recent News from Gao, Mali: Mixed Patrols, A Kidnapping, and A Shooting

Gao, one of northern Mali’s key cities, has witnessed several notable developments recently.

  • On December 24, unknown kidnappers seized a longtime French resident and aid worker affiliated with the small NGO Aide Gao. A search (French) was immediately mounted by Malian forces, French forces, and UN peacekeepers. Jeune Afrique (French) summarizes what is known of the kidnapping itself, the victim, and the search.
  • On January 4, a local Red Cross employee was shot and killed. “A resident of Gao said the worker had been shot by two men on a motorcycle late at night.”
  • On January 5, mixed patrols began in Gao involving former rebels from the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA), pro-government militia forces, and Malian government forces. The full force is expected to comprise 200 fighters from each of the three categories. The mixed patrols are meant to fulfill one condition from a 2015 peace deal. Until early January, the pro-government armed groups had opposed (French) the CMA’s desire to enter the city, but international and governmental mediation (French) appears to have resolved the dispute for the moment.

On Gao, MUJWA, and the ICRC

On March 30, a driver for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was fatally shot outside Gao, northern Mali. The attack was quickly claimed (French) by the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA, or MUJAO in French). MUJWA, an offshoot of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, was a key participant in the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012-2013. MUJWA and other jihadists have continued to trouble Mali since the French-led military intervention swept the jihadists out of power – though not entirely out of Mali – in 2013. MUJWA was a dominant player in Gao during 2012-2013.

One immediate effect of the killing will be a partial withdrawal by the ICRC. In a statement, the ICRC expressed concern over “the rise in violence against humanitarian workers, which is preventing them from coming to the aid of individuals and communities in dire need.” The humanitarian group has now suspended travel (French) in the north. The chilling effect of violence on relief operations is bad news for Mali, particularly for the approximately 100,000 Malians who remain internally displaced.

The attack also calls attention to MUJWA’s complicated trajectory. Since 2013, some fighters from MUJWA have joined the al-Murabitun network, named for an eleventh-century northwest African Islamic empire (al-Murabitun recently claimed an attack on a nightclub in Mali’s capital Bamako). Others have joined the Arab Movement of the Azawad (French), one of the non-jihadist northern rebel movements opposed to the national government but participating in intermittent peace talks. As the former MUJWA fighter interviewed at the link explains, some northern Malian Arabs looked to MUJWA to protect them from the Tuareg rebel group the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, another key northern rebel faction but an enemy of the Arab Movement of the Azawad. The point is not only the astounding complexity of the landscape of armed groups in northern Mali (which there are many experts who can explain better than I can), but also the way in which so many of the major actors from 2012-2013 are still influential, albeit often in different ways and venues than before.

Africa News Roundup: Kenyan Elections, Jonathan in 2015, Meth, and More

The big news for the coming week will be, of course, the elections in Kenya on March 4. The BBC profiles the candidates here.

Reuters:

Opponents [of Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan] within his own party say since he has already been sworn into office twice, another term would break the constitutional two-term limit. Cyriakus Njoku, a member of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), brought the case.

But Justice Mudashiru Oniyangi of the High Court in Abuja rejected that argument.

“After the death of Umar Yar’Adua, there was no election. President Jonathan was merely asked to assume the office … in line with doctrine of necessity,” he said.

“He is therefore currently serving his first tenure of office and if he so wishes, he is eligible to further seek his party’s ticket … to run for office in 2015.”

Njoku did not say whether he would appeal to the supreme court.

In my view Jonathan is highly likely to win the 2015 elections.

AFP:

Efforts were underway Friday to confirm the killing of a notorious Al-Qaeda commander during fighting with French troops in Mali, with Washington calling reports of his death “very credible”.

Algeria’s independent Ennahar TV reported this week that Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a chief of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed in northern Mali along with 40 other Islamist militants.

In Washington, a US official speaking on condition of anonymity said reports of his death seemed “very credible” and that if Abou Zeid was indeed slain “it would be a significant blow to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”

French officials have so far reacted with caution, with President Francois Hollande saying Friday: “Reports are circulating, it is not up to me to confirm them.”

Bloomberg relates that Sudan is reinforcing troop levels in Blue Nile State.

Jeune Afrique (French) on Gao, Mali.

Europe1 (French) reports that Boko Haram is attempting to recruit youth in Cameroon. “Today, dozens of members of the religious sect are in prison in Cameroon. It is to obtain their liberation that the group chose to kidnap seven members of a French family last week in the northwestern part of the country.”

VOA: “Methamphetamine ‘Growing Concern’ for West Africa.”

IRIN: “Why the Sahel Needs $1.6 Billion Again This year.”

Mali: Guerrilla Attacks and the Possibility of Pockets of Support for Islamists [Updated]

Since being displaced from northern Malian cities by French and Malian troops, Islamist fighters have turned to guerrilla tactics. At least three tactics have emerged so far: (attempted) suicide bombings, raids, and landmines.

In Gao, this weekend saw two suicide bombings (one Friday and one Saturday) followed by what might be called a raid on Sunday:

In the first large-scale urban guerrilla assault of the conflict, rebels from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) attacked Malian troops in the streets of central Gao, sending residents running for cover as Kalashnikov bullets and 14.5-millimetre rounds pierced the air.

Rocket-propelled grenade explosions and fire from heavy machine guns and light weapons resounded late into the afternoon before dying down in the evening, when a power cut plunged the city into darkness.

A French Tiger attack helicopter was circulating over the neighbourhood around the governor’s offices and the central police station, the focal points of the attack.

A Chadian source (French) with which I am unfamiliar, meanwhile, reports that another raid or ambush occurred around February 5, north of Kidal, in which gunmen attacked a Chadian contingent and killed twenty-four soldiers. I have not seen confirmation of this story elsewhere – the Chadian source says “this information has been carefully kept secret by Chadian and French authorities.” We’ll see if more details on this emerge. UPDATE: Commenters Andy Morgan and itsme_leclerc offer evidence suggesting strongly that the story is false.

Regarding landmines, fatal incidents have reportedly occurred in (1) Gossi (January 30, four Malian soldiers killed and five wounded), (2) along the road linking Kidal, Anefis and North Darane (around February 4, two civilians killed), and (3) between Douentza and Gao (February 6, four civilians killed). There may have been other incidents involving landmines too.

The emerging guerrilla war raises a number of questions, one of them being what support Islamist fighters have among northern communities. Al Akhbar (Arabic) mentions the hypothesis that yesterday’s raid on Gao may have involved “the entrance of some Islamists into the city by way of the river, with the help of some local residents.” One Malian commentator (French) writes, meanwhile, “In reality, in certain northern localities, one doesn’t know what support or what rejection these combatants might enjoy.” American analysts sometimes underestimate the support that Islamists possess on the ground in places like Mali, and images of celebration from liberated areas can give the impression that Malian populations unanimously delighted in the ouster of the Islamists. But the guerrilla phase of the conflict, assuming it continues, may hint at lingering pockets of support in Gao and elsewhere.

Africa News Roundup: Davos and Africa, Arrests in Mauritania, Darfur Talks, and More

Reuters: “At Davos, Bankers Close in on Africa.”

French and Malian soldiers may take Gao soon.

Timbuktu is apparently something of a ghost town at the moment.

AFRICOM: “AFRICOM Commander Addresses Concerns, Potential Solutions in Mali.”

Mauritania:

“Mauritanian police arrested eight students of the Islamic University in Laâyoune, 800km northeast of Nouakchott, and accused them of having ties with the extremist Islamist groups in northern Mali,” Sahara Media reported on Monday (January 21st). [Original story in Arabic here – six of them seem to have been subsequently freed (Arabic).]

Another young Mauritanian was arrested Monday in Guerou, 600km east of Nouakchott, Al-Akhbar reported.

Somalia:

Somali security forces will not be able to replace African troops until the international community provides “predictable” funding for their training, according to the United Nations.
“The withdrawal, whether it’s Ethiopian or Amisom, is contingent upon adequate replacement by the Somali forces,” Augustine Mahiga, the UN sectrerary-general’s special representative to the Horn of Africa nation, said in an interview in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “The pace at which Somali forces are being trained is not as fast because there hasn’t been predictable funding.”

Sudan Tribune: “The Sudanese government and a rebel faction of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) have agreed on an agenda to negotiate a peace deal, an international official told the UN Security Council (UNSC).”

IRIN: “Chad’s Health System Struggles to Combat Malnutrition.”

What else is happening?